Taliban bomb ripped through a crowded political rally in Pakistan’s tribal belt on Monday, killing at least 20 people and wounding 45 in the deadliest attack so far of the campaign for next Saturday’s national election.
The attack occurred in Kurram tribal region, along the border with Afghanistan, where several thousand tribesmen had gathered at a madrasa to hear Munir Khan Orakzai, a former member of Parliament. The bomb exploded just as Mr. Orakzai finished his speech and was stepping off the stage. The candidate was not injured but the bomb caused widespread devastation; one witness told The Associated Press of a “hell-like” situation with dozens of wounded people crying for help.
Unusually for such an attack, Mr. Orakzai was a candidate for the religious party Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam, which has close links to the Taliban.
In claiming responsibility for the bombing, a Taliban spokesman said that Mr. Orakzai was targeted because he had betrayed Arab jihadists who had been detained by the Pakistani Army and later ended up in American custody.
A government official, speaking on condition of anonymity, offered an alternative explanation: that the Taliban are attacking candidates who refuse to pay protection money to prevent attacks.
Whatever the cause, the attack brought the death toll from Taliban attacks since campaigning began on April 11 to over 80 people, and underscored the militants’ determination to shape the result of the May 11 poll.
Until now, militant violence has largely focused on candidates from two secular parties: the Awami National Party, which is based in the northwest, and the Muttahida Qaumi Movement, which dominates politics in the port city of Karachi.
The violence has overshadowed campaigning in what promises to be a historic election: the first time that a civilian government has served a full term, and handed power to another elected administration.
Former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif is the front-runner to form the next government, although he faces a stiff challenge in his home province of Punjab from the former cricketer Imran Khan.
Both Mr. Sharif and Mr. Khan have been measured in their criticism of the Taliban, and neither have suffered attack, although the caretaker government says they are also at risk.
In an interview with Reuters this week, Mr. Sharif said he believed that a military campaign was not the best way to defeat the Taliban insurgency. “I think guns and bullets are always not the answer to such problems,” he said.